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How to Stop Child Marriage? Punish Husbands, Parents and Wedding Guests.

How to Stop Child Marriage? Punish Husbands, Parents and Wedding Guests.

The president of the small West African country of Sierra Leone signed a law on Tuesday that banned marriage for children age 18 and younger and would impose steep fines on adult spouses. The move was a victory for activists who had long fought to eradicate the widespread practice.

The new legislation goes further than many other similar laws in Africa, experts said, by penalizing people who enable the marriage — like the parents, the officiant and even the wedding guests — in addition to the husband.

There were about 800,000 girls under the age of 18 who were married in Sierra Leone, UNICEF reported in 2020, which is about a third of the girls in the country. Half had been married by the time they turned 15. About 4 percent of boys are wedded by 18, according to Human Rights Watch.

Under the new law, those married as children can seek financial compensation. They also have a path out of their marriages: petitioning for an annulment.

Betty Kabari, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who focuses on women’s rights and sexual health in Africa, praised the approach of penalizing those who abet the marriage, saying, “The strongest aspect, to me, is noting that a child does not get married in isolation.”

Every year, at least 12 million girls under the age of 18 marry, according to the United Nations. More than 650 million girls and women were married as children.

South Asia has the largest number of child brides, about 290 million people, or 45 percent of the global total. Sub-Saharan Africa follows with about 127 million people, 20 percent.

According to a map of child marriages maintained by Girls Not Brides, a global organization that works to end the practice, 16 of the 20 countries with the highest rates are in Africa.

A report published this year by Equality Now looking at 20 countries in Africa found that only a few countries had full bans — and that many did not adequately enforce them.

Child marriage often leads to girls leaving school. Pregnancies at a young age can cause long-term injuries and trauma.

Sierra Leone is one of the deadliest places to give birth, which is even more dangerous for teenagers.

“They are forced to be adults before they are adults,” said Kadijatu Barrie, 26, a student and a program coordinator with Strong Girls Evolution, a networking organization for Sierra Leonean women, among other groups.

Ms. Barrie said that her family had begun pressuring her to marry when she was 10, and that she was disowned by her father when she was 15 for refusing. She said that she was worried that she would have to drop out of school.

“We have less educated women because of all of this,” she said.

Many face additional complications from another widespread cultural practice in the country: female genital cutting, which is considered a human rights violation by the World Health Organization. About 61 percent of girls in Sierra Leone aged 15 to 19 have undergone female genital cutting, which can cause serious difficulties in childbirth.

Under the new legislation, which went into effect on Tuesday, people who marry children can be imprisoned for 15 years or over $5,000. That is a stiff penalty in a country where the growth domestic product per capita is about $433 in 2023, according to World Bank data.

The law does not just apply to marriage. It also prohibits cohabitation in which adults live with and have a sexual relationship with children.

Parents are also not allowed to consent to a child’s marriage. Officiants cannot preside over one. Guests cannot attend a ceremony. In fact, anyone who “aids or abets” the marriage can face a 10-year sentence or a fine of about $2,500, or both.

The ban aligns with a broad initiative in Sierra Leone to promote the rights of girls by keeping them in school and protecting them from genital cutting.

President Julius Maada Bio put 22 percent of the national budget into education and brought more women into government. He and his wife, Fatima Bio, pushed for the child marriage ban.

“I have always believed that the future of Sierra Leone is female,” Mr. Bio posted on social media after signing the law with his young daughter at his side.

Nerida Nthamburi, the head of Africa engagement for Girls Not Brides, said,

“We want to look at Sierra Leone as being a leader on the continent that can influence other countries.”

In other countries, criminalizing child marriage has driven the practice underground, Ms. Nthamburi said, leading communities to close ranks and girls to have even fewer protections against the practice.

For the law to have any real impact, researchers and experts said, Sierra Leone’s officials will have to build sustained relationships with communities — especially in the rural areas, where child marriage is more common.

That would mean addressing poverty, which can lead families to marry their daughters off as children. It also means expanding efforts to educate communities about sexual and reproductive health.

Many women and girls would still have to go against their neighbors, their husbands and their families to refuse a marriage, petition to end one or seek compensation.

Ms. Barrie was ostracized for refusing pressure from her family. “All of them came together and went against me,” she said. “I became the worst person to them.”

She said that she had tried to stop her younger sister from marrying at age 14. But she had heard the way that Ms. Barrie was vilified in the community. Her sister, talented at drawing, had wanted to be a fashion designer.

“I couldn’t save her,” Ms. Barrie said. “It’s still something I cry about.”

Joseph Johnson contributed reporting.

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